We have a great opportunity in Texas this legislative session. We can make schools stronger by hiring more teachers to ease overcrowded classrooms. We can ensure that more kids have access to quality health care. We can support community colleges, a key down payment on the workforce of tomorrow. And we have the money to do all of this responsibly while keeping our savings account flush.
We’re a strong state, with a golden opportunity to prove that we value health and education. But we’re on track to squander this opportunity. Why?
Let's start with the general revenue lawmakers have to invest through August 2017 — $113 billion, according to the state comptroller. And that doesn’t even include the $11 billion that will be in our state savings account, the Economic Stabilization Fund.
To secure Texas' future, lawmakers could smartly invest that $113 billion in three significant ways: maintaining current levels of services, ending “budgeting tricks” to ensure transparency, and investing in our schools and children's education. Yet the budgets proposed by the Texas House and Senate fall short on all three counts.
Let’s look first at the $98 billion in general revenue that the House proposes for education, health care and other existing programs. It's encouraging to see the House propose investing another $2.2 billion in school finance formulas, leaving open the possibility of greater investments in schools. But if passed in its current form, the House proposal would leave other services short by at least $3 billion from even the inadequate levels of overall investments we're making today. Remember that Texas has the highest uninsured rate, the second-lowest investments in mental health and is the eighth-worst state to be a kid.
The Texas Senate’s $96 billion proposal maintains important investments in mental health care. But overall, the Senate proposal would mean even deeper cuts than the House proposal, including an inexplicable 4.5 percent cut to community colleges. Cutting investments in core educational and job training opportunities, particularly at a time when the middle class is getting pushed out of four-year universities due to rising costs, defies logic.
I understand that both budget proposals are mere starting points. And we all want a Texas budget that makes strategic investments and reduces wasteful spending. But neither chamber's initial budget proposal makes sufficient investments to help hard-working Texans or their families.
To build a budget that works for Texas families and children, legislators should inoculate themselves against tax cut fever. Touting tax cuts is a great way to score political points, but remember that cutting state taxes forces us to find the money elsewhere for necessary services — like raising tuition or local property taxes.
Texas is already a low-tax state overall. Residents in only 10 other states devote a smaller percentage of personal income to state and local taxes than Texans do — and only two of those states face our dual challenges of a fast-growing and changing population. Rather than continuing to push costs to local governments or let needs go unmet, we can responsibly invest in growth.
The House and Senate have launched their budget proposals. Now it's time for lawmakers to carefully consider the facts about our state's real needs. Both budgets contain some promising elements. As Texans, let's urge our elected officials to invest our resources wisely for a future in which all Texans are healthy, well-educated and financially secure.